EXCLUSIVE: Inside decorating sets for Westworld with Julie Ochipinti
Julie Ochipinti is the set decorator for HBO series Westworld and worked on a menagerie of other massive projects including Batman Begins, The Prestige (for which she received an Oscar-nomination), John Carter and The Dark Knight Rises. During her second year on Westworld, she won an ADG Excellence in Production Design Award and was nominated for an Emmy. Here Julie tells Mandy News about set decorating fantasy projects, the differences between set designers and set decorators and how she came into the business.
Please introduce yourself and tell us how you got involved in set decorating for TV and film.
Howdy, my name is Julie Ochipinti, but please call me Jules. I'm only Julie when I'm in trouble. I got my start over 20 years ago with my husband's help. He was working as an assistant to a talent agent at ICM in LA. He got me on a little HBO late night hard R movie starring Shannon Tweed.
My father was so proud [laughs]. That's back when HBO showed more adult movies late at night. I was an on-set PA doing horrible things like telling people to be quiet when shooting and picking up cigarette butts. It was love at first butt. That kicked off my love affair with my job that has lasted ever since. We are the luckiest profession in the world.
How did you get involved in Westworld?
I met Nathan Crowley, (Christopher Nolan's designer) when we moved to Dublin Ireland in 1997. My Irish husband had met him years earlier in a bar in Seattle. Nathan had just started designing his own films after art directing for the late Tom Sanders and was living in Dublin. Nathan and I met and he saw something in me and gave me my first proper gig in the art department with him on a mad, little film called Sweety Barrett. It starred relatively unknown actors Brendan Gleeson, Andy Serkis and Liam Cunningham. Cillian Murphy had a bit part in his first film.
Long story long, Nathan and I have worked together off and on ever since. He went off to do Insomnia in 2001 and then I met the Nolan gang on Batman Begins in London in 2003.
What was the process of working on Westworld at the start, coming up with the different worlds the characters inhabit?
This show has been a real head trip. It's my first proper dive into Sci-Fi and also my first big American TV show. What a hard and fast education it was. Obviously you work off the script and just start at the beginning like always.
Nathan did the pilot and he really laid down the laws and rules of Westworld. We work well together and I just follow his amazing lead. I love history and I love old s***. Contemporary films and settings have never really been my creative passion. I like the richness, texture and darkness of period pieces. I've been kinda let off my reigns on this project and it's been incredibly creatively rewarding.
In season two everything feels bigger and we see that Westworld is only part of a much larger place. What were the biggest challenges you faced in this season? What is the turnaround for an episode and how many people are in your department?
This entire season has been a massive challenge. We entered so many wonderful new worlds with Shogun being the most visually mind blowing. It was not only a new world for the show but for my entire team. You don't tend to shoot much Edo period Japan in modern day Los Angeles. The regular TV rules don't really apply to Westworld. We were still shooting things from episode one pretty much till the day we wrapped.
We had a million obstacles to overcome like actor availability, location shooting date restrictions, budget constraints and script changes. We were all over the map at times, shooting things from multiple episodes pretty much every week. It was madness. But wonderful madness that I wouldn't give up for the world.
Westworld has a way of making everyone feel vitally important to the show and that has been a totally unique experience for me. Most shows you just come and go and couldn't pick people out of a line up. We're all in the war together and it gives you an incredible bond with your coworkers. It truly is a special show that has been tattooed onto my heart.
You have also worked on huge films like Dark Knight Rises and John Carter. What are the main differences in your approach to working on a series opposed to a feature film?
HA! To be honest I was always a film snob until i started working on Westworld. Back in the day, TV wasn't the creative wonderland it is now. It was always film that filled that role. Now it's really TV.
TV is hard as hell. The schedule, the pace the standards. We essentially do a 10 hour feature film every season on Westworld. The work we do on Batman Begins, John Carter and The Prestige is essentially the same quality and scale as Westworld. We just do way way more of it here on Westworld. We had something like 325 sets this season. I think I personally touched or put dressing on over 250 of those. That is absolutely massive. On a big feature you might have 70 sets. So yeah, TV kicks your a**.
What is coming up next for you?
Right now I'm in Chicago working on Lovecraft Country for HBO. What a great city. I've never worked here before and I totally love this city and it's humans. Lovecraft Country is based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff. It follows Atticus Black as he joins up with his friend Letitia and his uncle to embark on a road trip across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father. This begins a struggle to survive and overcome both the racist terrors of white America and the terrifying monsters that could be ripped out of a H.P. Lovecraft novel.
That's all I can share with you now, but you will definitely be hearing about this show. So excited about this one. It's both a culturally important and creatively exciting new world for me.
What advice would you have for people wanting to become set decorators?
Set designers are the people that actually draft and draw up the sets to be built. I am the film or TV show's interior/exterior decorator. I don't build the sets, I populate them and give the characters their physical environments to live in.
We do all the furniture and decoration. I build some of the complicated set pieces like robot building machines or brain storage tanks. So it's super varied and never ever gets old. You won't see me doing cop shows or lawyer's offices anytime soon. I've been spoiled by the weird and wonderful worlds of Chris and Jonah Nolan, the creative minds of my mentor Nathan Crowley and my current wonder boss Howard Cummings.
The great thing about TV and film is you can come at it from a million different avenues. You can go to art school, film school, tech school, design school or just be a hard working, crazy type human like me. You have to like and work well with millions of different types of people. You have to be willing to do the long hours and the grunt work.
You need strong opinions, but not be too stubborn. Don't be afraid to speak up and contribute.
Just keep trying and don't give up. Apply for everything. I have hired a lot of PAs and given many people their start. I started dressing sets out of thrift stores and dumpsters. You have to have a personality and be willing to get stuck in. No white gloves in this department. Be creative and be yourself and you'll be just fine.
I truly am the luckiest woman in the world.
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